I’m at the Aspen Ideas Festival, where I’m one of a host of speakers given a couple minutes to deliver a “big idea.” Here’s the idea I went with, lightly expanded and annotated:
I’d like to get a little meta about big ideas. As a journalist, I think a lot about how we develop and communicate big ideas (“big” in this context meaning “complex,” “weighty”). At NPR, we have no end of nuanced, complicated matters to unravel, and I’m convinced that the transition to digital will end up being a huge asset in this task, not a hindrance. But we need to advance in our understanding of how narrative can work online.
“Big” ideas, examined closely, tend to resolve into a series of little ideas accumulated over time. So here’s my argument: To make our big ideas real, we need to develop better mechanisms for collecting and organizing all our ideas.
Take TV as an illustration. Until the VCR began to go mainstream in the mid-‘70s, television episodes were essentially self-contained events. With few exceptions, shows had to frame each episode for a potentially new audience, one that wasn’t necessarily attuned to the show’s continuity.
As VCRs took hold, narratives on TV — ideas on TV — could become more complex. Because viewers could catch up on a series’ essential plot elements on videotape, it was easier for them to follow story arcs and keep track of important developments. Formula-driven shows like Dragnet (pre-VCR) gave way to complex dramatic narratives like Hill Street Blues (post-VCR).
As VCRs gave way to the TiVo (the DVR) storytellers could offer even more complex arcs for audiences, paving the way for narratives of truly literary complexity and heft, such as the Wire. As we move deeper into streaming, and TV episodes sit increasingly alongside YouTube clips, “shows” will become yet more nuanced networks of ideas.
Now think about the structures we’ve used to collect ideas on the Internet. Start with the RSS reader, the Internet’s VCR of ideas — fussy, difficult to program, but it too let us follow story arcs and keep track of important developments. And it was good enough to foster complex serial narratives like Talking Points Memo’s investigation of US attorney firings.
A lot of folks say they’ve moved past the RSS reader. It’s not uncommon to hear us media types say “Twitter’s my RSS reader now.” But tweets and hashtags have obvious drawbacks for communicating complex ideas. I can say, “We need a TiVo for ideas.” I can point you to the hashtag “#tivoforideas.” Hashtags, as we’ve seen, can have tremendous power for collecting ideas at a moment in time. But partly because tweets are ephemeral — they quickly fade beyond search and memory — hashtags are poor vessels for binding ideas over time.
Hence my big idea: We need to develop simpler and more powerful ways of collecting and following concepts across time. There’s much to learn from — hashtags, Storify, Wikipedia, Tumblr. But I suspect what we’re aiming for is a standard, not an app, a common convention, not a website. I want to be able to say, “Track the #tivoforideas conversation,” and watch this domain of thought develop over time as multiple thinkers add their input, and little ideas coalesce, gradually, into big ones.
- This, of course, ties in very much with the body of thinking I and others have been doing about the future of context.
- First Paul Ford and then Megan Garber have delivered powerful essays on the evolving nature of ideas in an era where streams have surpassed stories (e.g. Twitter replacing the RSS reader). I think about these two pieces all the time. Chase them with a reading of Megan’s essay on TED, ideas and authorship.
- PJ Onori started a similar conversation a little while ago at Adaptive Path, very much worth connecting to this one. (Thanks, @absi!).
- I still haven’t written my grand treatise about the nature of quest narratives and how that format enables grand ideas to develop, but you might find it interesting to click through these slides of a presentation I gave on the subject: